My mother fell in love with Cowichan sweaters in 1978. It's taken me until now to appreciate them, but having seen Sylvia Olsen's collection this fall, I now understand how she felt.
I remember Mom's Cowichan odyssey, because even though I was only 8 at the time, her hair-tearing, blue-streak-cursing, battle with the Gods of Gauge left a permanent mark on me. Looking back, I can't believe I ever wanted to knit, myself, after witnessing the carnage.
It happened to Mom, as I recall, like this: She came into a large quantity of sale-table yarn. And by large, I mean to say that she bought all they had. There were varied amounts of at least six earth-toned colors in the clear plastic bag she stored it in. The plastic bag, I remember, had been the original packaging for a Queen-sized down comforter, to give you an idea of the scale here. Her ambitious plans called for no less than three Cowichans, I remember. Mom was not one to do things by half.
Her tactical plan was to knit the biggest specimen first, for my dad, then a smaller one for her, and the smallest one for my older sister, who would then allegedly pass it down to me. She dove in with gusto, dragging the bag of yarn (all of it) with us on the boat, where we spent every weekend, and at least two solid weeks, that summer. Let me tell you, with four people and all the gear required to live that long on a 32' cabin cruiser, the space allocated to mom's Yarn Bag was prime real estate. Such was her devotion to the Cowichan Project.
Being only a kid, I failed to grasp the significance of her announcement, sometime in late June, that this sweater was going to be for her instead of for Dad, because it seemed like it was turning out smaller than she'd expected.
It was mid-July when Susie, my 13-year-old sister was deemed the sweater's rightful recipient. There was still lots of yarn in the bag, after all, so the tension in Mom's voice during this proclamation wasn't the worst we'd ever heard. Although, Dad, having fallen over the yarn bag more than a few times on the deck of the boat, was forming somewhat vocal opinions about knitting, yarn supplies, and Indian Sweaters in general.
It was the bitter end of August when Mom finished the Cowichan. It was going to be given directly to me; Susie having inexplicably "filled out" while Mom was engaged in her cage match with the cardigan. I donned the thing triumphantly so she could mark the buttonholes. Its edges failed to meet in the center of my 8-year-old torso. It was also surprisingly long, hanging almost to my knees. My mother, undaunted (or more likely in a rage-induced fugue state) created a set of front bands on the thing which was quite wide, indeed. And this I remember, but not the reason why: She crocheted the plackets, rather than knitting them on. Was knitting dead to her at that point?
Ultimately, she considered the project a triumph, because Mom was always way more of a starter than a finisher. Having completed the beast, size notwithstanding, she had the last word. There were no other Cowichans, after that. She referred to this as "quitting while I'm behind". The yarn bag hung around Mom's house for decades, though. Child of the Great Depression that she was, she didn't get rid of it - though I suspect she could always hear it mocking her.
I forgot all about Mom's Summer of Cowichan Discovery, until I went looking for vintage Cowichan patterns on my own. It was then that I saw and remembered this face:
It was HIM, the Prince Valiant-haired Canadian boy, who had taunted my mother for all those weeks on the boat. I'd recognize him anywhere. I bought the pattern and waited an insufferably long time for the international post. When it finally came, I applied all my forensic knitting skills to the question of how it had nearly bested Mom.
To begin with, she had the wrong yarn. Hers was bulky, but not the 6-strand unspun super-bulky she would have needed. Could've happened (and has) to any of us. The instructions are predictably vague, too, and partly in French. No wonder Mom couldn't get the gauge right, if she even knew it was important.
I'm so pleased to have finally solved the mystery what went wrong with my Mother's knitting in the summer of 1978. I feel strangely bad that the grown-up knitting teacher Me couldn't be there to help her back then. Maybe it's the memory of my helplesness in the face of her frustration that made me a knitter, after all. My cunning plan is to reknit the Cowichan, Her Cowichan, at the proper gauge, to vindicate her struggle.
This yarn is no longer in production, but I'm sure You, Gentle Readers, can offer some substitution ideas? What's your Cowichan Story?